David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

January 20, 2015 – All Balanchine I (Serenade, Agon, Symphony in C)
January 21, 2015 – Hear the Dance: Russia (Symphonic Dances, The Cage, Andantino, Cortege Hongrois)

Jerry Hochman

Craig Hall and Lauren Lovette in Jerome Robbins' 'The Cage'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Craig Hall and Lauren Lovette in Jerome Robbins’ ‘The Cage’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Any lingering doubt that New York City Ballet is the place to go for ballet breadth and performance excellence on a company-wide scale should have been dispelled by the two opening programs of its Winter 2015 season.

The opening night program consisted of three Balanchine classics, and any season that opens with “Serenade” is already one to celebrate. But the second program, under the rubric, “Hear the Dance: Russia,” though choreographically uneven, was so excitingly performed by NYCB’s outstanding current roster of dancers, and particularly its young principals and soloists that it must be considered up front. The evening’s highlights were Lauren Lovette’s knockout debut as the Novice in Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage”, and the equally superlative performances by Sara Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin (her debut) in Balanchine’s “Cortege Hongrois”.

Nothing could have prepared the audience for Ms. Lovette’s brilliant tour de force. The qualities that comprise her stage persona include an engaging confluence of sensuality and innocence (a killer combination), and her ability, when appropriate, to express emotion and character full to the fingertips. It is that latter quality that she displayed in her extraordinary debut as the Novice. Nevertheless, even given that demonstrated talent, this performance took that talent to another level. Though still a soloist, Ms. Lovette is already one of the company’s most versatile ballerinas; this performance represents another artistic growth spurt.

In all his ballets, and aside from the exquisite craftsmanship common to each, Mr. Robbins created characters that display a natural, human quality. In “The Cage”, a ballet that visualizes the rites of a colony of female insects (most people think spiders, but I see them more as killer ants) who devour their male prey, he translates this into a remarkable characterization of an insect. It’s an electrifying, brilliantly gruesome piece, easy to appreciate as a work of art, but difficult to like. I’ve seen it several times over the years, but found no way to connect with the lead character, the Novice, who emerges from a cocoon-like incubation and is trained by the nest’s Queen (who might have been Myrta in another life) to be a consummate killer. I watched performances of the Novice many years ago by Heather Watts and Wendy Whelan, and admired their powerful portrayals. Most recently, the performance by Janie Taylor impressed me, because her Novice was the most delicate, and the most accessible: a killer ant one could learn to love. But I’ve never seen a performance that displayed the sheer power, coupled with the ‘humanity’ of a killer insect, that I saw last night from Ms. Lovette – or one that was such a shocking reversal of stage persona.

From her first appearance on stage, even before she began to move, Ms. Lovette looked striking – tightly curled and imprisoned by her ‘cocoon’. When she emerged, under the Queen’s direction, she slowly uncoiled, and transformed her appearance from being an awkward ‘elephant woman’ of an insect, to a student soldier who took to killing the first entrapped man like a duck to water, emoting with her eyes, the angle of her head, her piercing silent wail (related to what she did so well as Calliope in “Apollo”), and her beautifully brutal contorted insect body.

Her encounter with the second ‘intruder’ who stumbles into the nest (or onto the web) is more complex, as it’s supposed to be. There’s an attraction between the Novice and this Intruder, and one could see Ms. Lovette’s hard edge soften – ever so slightly, but distinctly and emphatically. Her duet with him was an emotional nail-biter; the silence in the house was deafening. And then, when the sexual encounter ended, she transformed again, instinctively and mercilessly murdering her mate.

With a wig of short-clipped black hair, Ms. Lovette looked vicious – but her characterization very carefully distinguished viciousness from evil. This Novice was a creature to respect and fear, and ultimately to admire in wonder and awe. Somewhere, Mr. Robbins must be smiling.

Contributing to Ms. Lovette’s successful portrayal was her stage relationship with the second Intruder, Craig Hall. Mr. Hall’s performance was necessarily understated, subservient as his character is to an amazon of an insect. But it was a masterful performance, and it reflects the level of trust that I’ve seen develop over the seasons between them, that enables Ms. Lovette to be the character she needs to be. The one casualty of the evening was Savannah Lowery, in her stage debut as the Queen. She danced her role capably, but Ms. Lovette was so powerful, so dominant, that Ms. Lowery couldn’t compete.

Sara Mearns in 'Cortege Hongrois'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns in ‘Cortege Hongrois’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

“Cortege Hongrois” is a curious, glorious ballet that Balanchine created in 1973 as a farewell gift for the retiring Melissa Hayden. It’s curious because it’s comprised of dances from Alexander Glazounov’s “Raymonda” that Balanchine previously used in his “Pas de Dix” and “Raymonda Variations,” so watching it creates a sense of déjà vu on multiple levels, even though the choreography here is different. It’s glorious because it is interestingly structured, and a vehicle for superb dancing for a large number of company dancers.

In a ballet that is a series of related dances – there is no narrative thread – Balanchine separates and distinguishes the two foundations of the score: there are sections that reflect an air of Hungarian ‘royalty’, and segments that are more ‘ethnic’. These complementary musical themes are here performed separately, by different groups of dancers who are costumed differently and move differently, and each focus has a different lead couple: Ms. Mearns and Tyler Angle led the ‘royal’ branch; Ms. Pazcoguin and Ask la Cour the more ethnic ‘folk’ branch (including the Czardas).

Ms. Mearns is a superb ballerina, but I have found her adagio dances to be too often infected with pathos, and her efforts at lightheartedness to come across as gratuitous and insincere. When she began the ballets central pas de deux with Mr. Angle with what looked like an Odette outtake, I feared another performance unnecessarily dominated by pathos, where only seriousness and a noble attitude was called for. But that segment ended quickly, and the balance of the pas de deux was delivered with exceptional clarity and strength, and when she lightened up to celebratory mode, she looked real. It was one of Ms. Mearns’s finest performances – despite wearing make-up that looked like flour. Mr. Angle tends to be taken for granted: he always delivers a superlative performance, and is an excellent partner for Ms. Mearns. He demonstrated both qualities last night.

However, as fine as Ms. Mearns and Mr. Angle were, Ms. Pazcoguin’s debut as the ‘second’ lead was merely fabulous. She has a low company profile, and since her promotion to soloist I’ve seen her less frequently than others. But the stage came alive when she appeared in last night’s performance, not just because of the quality of the music and the choreography, but because of her spirited, smoldering execution.

In “Cortege Hongrois”, many company dancers are given the opportunity to shine. In their respective variations, Lauren King and Ashley Laracey danced superbly, with flair and panache to accompany the immaculate execution. And in the Pas de Quatre, Sara Adams, Likolani Brown, Alina Dronova, and Mary Elizabeth Sell excelled, as did the other two featured ballerinas, Meagan Mann and Gwyneth Muller.

“Symphonic Dances”, which opened the second night’s program, is not one of Mr. Martins’ better ballets. Although it complements the Rachmaninoff composition, it doesn’t amplify it so much as mirror it, presenting a clash of styles (contemporary and romantic) in the process. And his decision to have only one lead couple, rather than to subdivide the featured dancing among different pairs, though an understandable effort to present differently, makes the ballet appear to have several ‘false endings’, giving the sense that it goes on much too long.

That having been said, “Symphonic Dances” is not an unpleasant ballet to watch, has intriguing and colorful costumes designed by Santo Loquasto, and here featured an effectively assertive performance, with an edge, by Mr. Veyette, and a beguiling, romantic reverie, with an edge, from Ms. Hyltin.  Both were smashing role debuts.

Mr. Veyette excels in roles that require him to display what appear to be mini-choreographic temper tantrums (pounding fists; thrusting legs), but this stage alienation masks what may be an underlying romantic. His role in this piece requires such character duality; he is at once angular and smooth, aggressive and charming.  If a ballet were created that would include a James Dean-like character, he’d be a prime candidate for the job.

Ms. Hyltin has proven that she can excel in anything, from “Swan Lake” to “Symphony in Three Movements”. Here, she doesn’t so much appear on stage as float across it, with a breezy air that enchants as it visually entices. The role doesn’t call for much variety of expression or movement quality, but Ms. Hyltin always appears to occupy more stage space than her body actually utilizes, and she was the piece’s heart.

“Andantino”, a pas de deux choreographed by Robbins to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1”, is a romantic duet that looks restrained, but which camouflages the passion under the surface. However, even though it’s crafted impeccably, and was impeccably performed by Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia, it’s not a particularly exciting or interesting piece to watch. It might have fared better had it preceded “The Cage” on the program; following the excitement of that piece and Ms. Lovette’s towering performance in it, “Andantino” was the visual equivalent of flat champagne.

Sterling Hyltin (centre) and New York City Ballet in 'Serenade'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin (centre) and New York City Ballet in ‘Serenade’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

The opening night, “Serenade”, one of NYCB’s signature ballets, and perhaps its most beloved, was given a superb performance, led by Ms. Hyltin, Erica Pereira (in a role debut), and Teresa Reichlen; and by Robert Fairchild and Mr. la Cour. Ms. Hyltin is as exceptional in this role as she is in others; Ms. Pereira sparkled and is dancing with an increased level of confidence – she’s still great fun to watch, but she’s becomes more and more exciting with each performance; and Mr. Fairchild danced as if he’d been reinvigorated.

“Agon”, Balanchine’s classic Stravinsky ballet, is all angular and piercing and contemporary (although created in 1957), and almost the visual antithesis of “Serenade”. It’s tough to love – but it’s brilliant, and received another exceptional performance by Maria Kowroski, Amar Ramasar, Megan LeCrone, Devin Alberda, Daniel Applebaum, Ms. King, Ms. Laracey, and Mr. Veyette. Mr. Ramasar remains one of the company’s most underrated dancers. He is particularly extraordinary here, partnering Ms. Kowroski. And Ms. LeCrone was outstanding, delivering her best performance that I’ve seen to date.

The evening concluded with “Symphony in C”, another Balanchine classic. Divided into four movements of different tempi, it’s a crowd-pleasing piece that moves seamlessly from one to another. Ashley Bouder and Chase Finlay anchored the first, allegro vivo, movement; Ms. Mearns and Jared Angle the second, adagio; Ms. Lovette and Mr. Garcia the third, allegro vivace, and Brittany Pollack and Adrian Danchig-Waring the fourth, also allegro vivace (but a bit faster). For the ballerinas, all but Ms. Mearns were role debuts, and for Ms. Bouder and Ms. Lovette, because of late cast shuffling, the debuts were earlier than originally scheduled, and with different partners. Nevertheless, the ballet received a strong performance overall.

What these performances demonstrate, beyond the quality of the ballets and the fine performances of them, is the company’s exceptional depth and, more importantly, its encouragement of its dancers. These seven ballets included seventeen featured female roles (including the Queen in “The Cage”), eight of which were assigned to principal ballerinas. The remaining nine were divided among eight ballerina soloists, most of which were role debuts. And these do not include a host of other roles, danced by soloists and corps dancers, which provide opportunities for individual dancers to be challenged, to stand out, and to prove themselves. Of course, part of this is a result of the company’s repertoire of ballets that allow for multiple featured roles. But part is also the result of casting decisions that are inclusive, that consider the company’s future on a broad basis, and that encourage dancers to assay roles that emphasize and grow different performing skills.  A natural, and beneficial, consequence of this policy is that enables NYCB audiences to see a broad range of dancers and watch them grow, rather than being force-fed a chosen few. It’s what has made NYCB the place to go.